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World War 2 Air Cdre Mehar Singh, DSO, MVC - Maverick Of The Skies


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
ONCE the history of any war is diligently imbibed, certain actions and deeds of individuals get imprinted so firmly in memory that they resurface time and again, with the least provocation. So it was that the mere mention of a school child’s last name, a few days ago, brought to mind in a flash her late uncle, the indomitable Air Cdre Mehar Singh, D.S.O., M.V.C.

Now, Squadron Leader Mehar Singh was conferred the first and the only D.S.O. of the Royal Indian Air Force during World War II. Again, within weeks of India’s Independence, Air Cdre Mehar Singh would be marked for the IAF’s first Mahavir Chakra. On both occasions, recognition came for gallantry and exceptional leadership on the battlefield in two different wars and under gruelling circumstances. By the time Field Marshal William Slim launched the reinvigorated XIV Army to defeat the Japanese in the India-Burma theatre in 1944, Mehar Singh’s actions and deeds had already placed him in the league of legends. His reputation was aptly and amusingly summed up by the Field Marshal in his memoirs, recounting an impromptu visit to No 6 Squadron of the RIAF in the Arakans (Burma): "The last air patrol had run into a bunch of Zeros (Japanese fighter aircraft) and had been shot down. The Sikh Squadron Leader, an old friend of mine, at once took out the next patrol himself and completed the mission. His methods, rumour had it, were a little unorthodox. It was said that if any of his young officers made a bad landing, he would take them behind a basha and beat them. Whatever he did, it was effective; they were a happy, efficient and gallant squadron."

It was not unusual to find entries in Mehar Singh’s log book, flying upward of one hundred hours in a month, time and again. Flt Lieut Asghar Khan, who later became the Chief of Air Staff of Pakistan said: "With the solitary exception of Sqn Ldr Mehar Singh, a pilot of exceptional ability, no one was able to inspire confidence among us."

Mehar Singh was probably in the class of born ace pilots but more than that, he was innovative and daring in his modus operandi. Perhaps his calibre as a flyer and leader was best illustrated when one of his pilots crash-landed but survived and walked back to the base. Within minutes of debriefing the pilot, Mehar Singh had the whole squadron airborne.

It was an unmitigated tragedy when men of this one subcontinent would now be pitched in battles against each other but as citizens of two different nations. When on January 26, 1950, the Republic of India announced its first gallantry awards, Air Cdre Mehar Singh received the IAF’s first Mahavir Chakra. Unlike the foot soldiers, Mehar Singh in his fighter/ bomber aircraft would be dropping bombs in the Poonch-Rajouri area in the west by night, and at dawn, strafing the enemy bunkers in the north along the Zoji La-Amarnath crest line, hundreds of kilometres apart.

The moment of his ultimate glory came when he created aviation history by landing the first aircraft on the outskirts of Leh, by the banks of the river Indus.

By January 1948, Pakistan’s armed misadventure was fully contained in the Jammu region as also in the Srinagar valley. But for Mehar Singh’s innovative bombing with Dakotas followed by the landing of the first one at a manually-levelled, mere 600-yard strip at Poonch, that tract of India would have been lost to Pakistan. However, it was the lack of road and aerial access to Ladakh year-long which was now a cause of serious concern. It was evident that for the moment airlift of troops and materials to Ladakh was the only course open. It was equally evident that the only man who could pioneer the aerial landing at Leh was Mehar Singh.

In a one-to-one meeting, Major-Gen K S Thimayya emphasised that "the fall of Leh would be a strategic blow to India. It had to be saved at all cost`85that he was prepared to risk his own life with the IAF to save Leh."

Mehar Baba (as the Air Cdre was now affectionately called) explained that "the Dakota was not designed to fly at such high attitude." General Thimayya knew that Mehar Singh never asked his subordinates to undertake a task that he himself had not first carried out, and so he closed the discussion on a positive note : "I will be on that flight in your {censored}pit. So lets go!"

The stage was thus set for Mehar Baba when, on May 24, 1948, he landed the first Dakota at Leh, on an unprepared surface, 11,540 ft ASL. His passenger was Major-Gen K S Thimayya D.S.O., GOC 19 Div. To land at Leh, one had to negotiate towering mountains in an ancient Dakota with no heating facilities, no pressurisation and without any surveyed route map. A great pity that no photo-record was made of the first landing, though the next flight of six Dakotas also led personally by Mehar Baba on May 28 was fully covered. The aircraft and crews were literally engulfed this time by the astonished Ladakhis.

Four months after the Leh landing, Mehar Singh resigned his commission. On March 11, 1952, nine days short of his 33rd birthday, he died when the Bonanza aircraft, caught in a freak, sudden storm crashed on the outskirts of Delhi, snuffing out a charmed life.

Death, be not proud;
For, Mehar Baba flies forever;
In his immortal shroud.



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Jun 1, 2004
Few names in the Indian Air Force (IAF) evoke such awe and inspiration as the mention of Air Commodore Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO. Mehar Baba, as he was known, was one pilot who aroused instant admiration and respect from his subordinates. Qualities that prompted the remarks of one of his junior officers, Air Marshal Asghar Khan, who later went on to become the Chief of Air Staff of the Pakistan Air Force, to say, "With the solitary exception of Sqn. Ldr. Mehar Singh, a pilot of outstanding ability, no one was able to inspire confidence among us."

Mehar Singh was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 1st August 1936 passing out from Cranwell. and posted to the sole Squadron in the Air Force. No.1 Squadron then based in the North West Frontier. He went into action immediately against the Frontier Tribesmen. He flew missions with a devastating passion, including one month in which he flew 100 Hours!

On one particular occasion, his Wapiti was shot down. He was raiding the positions of a force of tribesmen, when his fuel tank got punctured by rifle fire. When the Wapiti's engine cut out, he force landed the flimsy biplane into a valley. Due to the rocky ground, the aircrafts under carriage sheared off and the biplane got totaled. However, Mehar Singh and his gunner extricated themselves from the wreckage and gave the tribesmen the slip as the darkness fell. They traversed hostile territory all night without maps, till they stumbled onto a post manned by the Tochi scouts. Mehar was back in his squadron the very next day and flying again!

After the outbreak of World War 2, Mehar Singh formed No.6 Squadron at Trichinopoly on 1st December 1942. The squadron was formed with the merger of the Coastal Defence Flights and was equipped with the Hawker Hurricane. The squadron flew its first operational sortie in November 1943 and was trained in the role of a recon squadron. Under Mehar Singh's able leadership, the squadron earned the sobriquet, "The Eyes of the Fourteenth Army" (The 14th Army was the British Army commanded by Gen William Slim).

The squadrons Hurricanes became a popular sight with the forward troops, who used to call them different names ranging from "The Arakan Twins" to "The Maungdaw Twins". The squadron reached such heights of efficiency that Field Marshal Slim remarked in his book Defeat into Victory that, "I was particularly impressed with the conduct of the squadron led by a young Sikh Squadron Leader. (Mehar Singh)...They were a happy and an efficient unit." At the end of the tour of the Squadron, Mehar Singh was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The only such award to the Indian Air Force ever.

The call of duty beckoned again in 1947 after independence, during the tribal invasion of Kashmir. Mehar Singh, now an Air Commodore, was put in charge of No.1 Operational Group at the time of independence, was in charge command and control of air operations in India. Mehar Singh led from the front. He flew many of the pioneering and daunting missions himself. He never put into risk his men in tasks for which he would not venture himself first.

One of the first assignments on Mehar Singh's task list was the relief of Poonch. Poonch was an isolated garrison which was cut off from motorable roads due to enemy incursions, and it was left to Mehar Singh to supervise the air relief of Poonch. Mehar Singh personally flew a Harvard aircraft and landed it at Poonch airstrip which was newly constructed. The very next day, Mehar repeated the feat, this time flying a Dakota. Soon after Dakotas started bringing in supplies, evacuating causalities and when the necessity arose, flying down the Mountain Howitzers of the Hazara Mountain Battery for the defence of Poonch.

Mehar Singh's flight to Leh in Ladakh has been well chiseled into annals of the Indian Air Force's legend. When the remote district of Ladakh was in a danger of being cut off and overrun by a Pakistani force from Skardu along the Shyok Valley, a decision was taken to fly troops by air to Leh, which had an airfield at an altitude of 11,540 feet. flying an uncharted route, over hills and peaks ranging from 15000 feet to 24000 feet, Mehar Singh flew the first Dakota to Leh and landed it at the highest airstrip in the world. The faith in this man was re-imposed by none other than the commander of land forces in the Srinagar Valley sector, Major General K.S. Thimmayya, DSO, who accompanied Mehar Singh on the pioneering flight.

Mehar Singh also undertook the conversion of Dakotas into bombers. The Dakotas were modified to carry 500 lbs. bombs in their cargo bay and the cargo handlers were trained to roll out the bombs out of the door onto targets below.

Things were not fine, however, though fighting the war was taking up most of Mehar Singh's time, there was also an undercurrent of resentment building up inside him. Mehar felt that the recognition due to him in the air force was not given, and added to the fact that he did not get along with some of his senior officers in the air force, Mehar decided to put his papers in August 1948. The Defence Minister, Sardar Baldev Singh, relieved Mehar Singh in September. Thus ended Mehar's association with the service he loved.

But he still carried on the profession he loved...flying. Mehar Singh moved onto civilian flying. He returned to the spotlight for a brief moment in 1950, when he recieved the Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) from a grateful nation, when the gallantry awards were instituted. As the senior most officer, Mehar Singh received the first Maha Vir Chakra to the Indian Air Force. Therafter, Mehar went back to flying Dakotas and transports, becoming the personal pilot of the Maharaja of Patiala.

Indian Aviation suffered one of its most tragic losses on 11 March 1952, when Air Commodore (retd.) Mehar Singh, MVC, DSO, was killed in an civilian air crash. Thus, in a violent end, was cut short the life of a legend.




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